Tibetan Library — refuge & healing ground

The Library of Tibetan Works & Archives was a doorway for thousands of Westerners into Tibetan Buddhism. Begun in 1970 to house scriptures brought by refugees from Chinese-occupied Tibet, it also became the venue for daily classes on Tibetan Buddhism for non-Tibetans. Its first teacher was Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, and its first students a motley crew of backpackers, hippies and spiritual seekers who either stumbled into or were drawn to the cool heights of Dharamsala in North-West India.

The following story is from an early draft of Schettini’s memoir, The Novice.

Dharamsala, 1974: Buddhist philosophy was interesting, but the Geshe was my special focus of attention. With a twinkle in his eye, he welcomed – actually relished – questions; this was a far cry from my old Catholic teachers who told me repeatedly how I should be but never hinted at how to get that way.

Stories of spiritual mentoring had enthralled me for years. I’d read about the Zen masters who used crazy ruses to trick disciples into sudden insights, and of Carlos Casteneda’s Don Juan, who used sorcery to catapault his students into new planes of existence. True, Tibetan Buddhism was a deeply institutionalized, ancient tradition, but it was one in which I still hoped to receive the spontaneous instruction of a personal mentor.

England had felt like a trap to me. Middle-class nicieties hid their trivial pretensions under layers of pointless sophistication; I wanted none of it. How to escape, though? My self-directed searching had led me into various dead ends: communism, hippydom, drugs and, all too recently, on-the-road oblivion. Each had been worse then the previous one. Simply rejecting my past wasn’t enough; I needed direction.

Geshe started with a brief prayer, and the interpreter said, “Today, Geshe will talk about the two types of truth – relative and ultimate.”

Wasn’t that exactly what I needed? My breaks with Catholicism, Communism and counter-culture had left me in a relativist haze. I missed the simple security of believing in something, but I couldn’t just decide to believe.

Geshe immediately tapped in to my dilemma, saying that no system of thought was ultimately true, and that the only measure of its worth was to live it and see. This was a philosophy I could embrace without losing self-respect. In fact, Geshe Dhargyey’s presence was in itself a key to regaining it.

“The two truths are conventional” Geshe looked around, “and ultimate. Conventional truth is used to name things, but ultimate truth cannot do that.” He shook his head. “Is that clear?”

There was a knowing chuckle from the front row.

“This is very difficult. Don’t be discouraged if it’s unclear. Ultimate truth cannot be discussed because it is not an idea or an opinion. It is direct insight into the true nature of things, and their nature is empty of inherent existence.”

This seemed clear enough for anyone who’d ever experienced existential angst. However, Geshe spent the next few minutes stressing how we couldn’t possibly understand.



Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, 1974
© Fred von Allmen; by kind permission



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